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 His clothes are recyled, but his insights are fresh. This year's graduating seniors will hear from Adrian Down in the Greek Theatre next week. (Steve McConnell photo)

When is a University Medalist like a tomato?
Top graduating senior can juggle multiple dimensions, feminist theory, and organic gardening

| 02 May 2007

Most days, Adrian Down can be found pushing a wheelbarrow around the student organic garden. Resembling a tropical frog or vulgar tourist, he's often garbed in an orange T-shirt, blue-plaid shorts, and blue-and-pink sneakers. He rides a 1980 bicycle, grazes on homegrown vegetables, and uses such quaint exclamations as "Holy cow!"

But goofy thrift-store outfits belie Down's wisdom and humility. His 3.9 GPA, intense scientific curiosity, and altruism have landed him Berkeley's highest honor for a graduating senior. As the winner of the 2007 University Medal, Down will speak at Commencement Convocation on May 9 and receive a $2,500 scholarship.

Since arriving at Berkeley in 2003, Down has published scholarly articles on extra-spatial dimensions; taught science and math to low-income urban youth and yoga to the disabled; perfected his French; practiced the martial art of hankido (he's also a black belt in tae kwon do); played alto saxophone and guitar; grown organic fruits and vegetables; and provided nutritious food to folks who shop mostly at convenience and liquor stores.

"Adrian is quintessential Berkeley," wrote Stephen Andrews Jr., coordinator of the campus's Environmental Science Teaching Program and lecturer in environmental earth science, in his letter recommending Down for the medal.

"He effortlessly, and quite often humorously, gravitates from discussions of dark matter, exotic particles, and extra-spatial dimensions . to growing organic heirloom tomatoes, talking about the hottest vegan night spot in the gourmet ghetto, and finally naming the best thrift stores in the Bay Area to shop for recycled clothing," Andrews wrote.

A feminist in heels

Down also believes in walking in someone's shoes before passing judgment, even if it means tottering to his advanced feminist theory class in high heels. As the only male in that class this spring, the ruddy-cheeked math and physics major threw himself wholeheartedly into an assignment for students to dress as female archetypes.

As soon as he was done with the freshman physics class he was teaching, he donned skirt, blouse, heels, and earrings and headed for the class, following by baffled stares: "It was eye-opening," Down says. "I'm really glad I took advantage of that experience."

In his application essay for the University Medal, the Canadian-born, North Carolina-educated vegan likened his success at Berkeley to the growth of a tomato, with a seed finding new fertile soil and drawing on the environment to thrive.

"I think I was a West Coast native all the time, struggling on the East Coast," Down says.

Down was born in Toronto in 1985 and remains loyal to his Canadian roots, hanging a "humungous" maple-leaf flag in his bedroom. His family moved to Boston when he was three and then to Raleigh, N.C., when he was five, which is where he finished high school.

Life in North Carolina was humid, and much of the nature he saw was confined to pine trees and tobacco fields. Mosquitoes loved him, so he was reluctant to spend much time outdoors. Summers were often a matter of moving from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned building. It was not his natural habitat.

His household was a frugal one as his father, a medical researcher, was studying throughout much of Down's childhood. When his father later landed an industry job, the family joined the ranks of the upper middle classes but continued to watch its pennies. Still, Down's parents supported each twist and turn of their son's learning quest, from music to literature to figuring out how things work.

Brain stimulation

When he was 14, Down received a gift certificate from his uncle, and found himself torn between buying a book on martial arts and Richard Morris' The Universe, The Eleventh Dimension, and Everything: What We Know and How We Know It. He finally opted for the physics book, although he couldn't understand much if any of it. But it stimulated a part of his brain, and from time to time he would re-read the book to see if he could make sense of it.

In high school Down dyed his hair orange, played in a punk band, became a vegan, and started shopping at thrift stores. Most of the merchandise was brightly colored, which suited him just fine. But beneath the flamboyant fašade he was a shy kid with a small, tight-knit group of friends.

At that point in his education Down was more interested in the humanities than the sciences. But in his 12th-grade physics class he discovered a knack for problem solving, and the teacher encouraged him to pursue his talents in college.

When it was time to apply for college, he covered the traditional East Coast bases: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Rutgers. He was attracted to Berkeley, but to him the campus seemed exotic and inaccessible.

"Berkeley really has this aura on the East Coast," Down says. "It's definitely regarded as one of the best universities in the world."

As it turned out, the only colleges he was accepted by were Berkeley and Rutgers. Down suspects the credits he received from a private high school he attended for a couple of years did not meet the East Coast's more conservative admissions standards.

More important, Berkeley was exactly where he was meant to be. "I've visited friends at Harvard, and when I got there, I was really glad I ended up at Berkeley," Down says. "Everything I've gotten here has been really ideal, and has fit me very well."

One highlight during his first semester was an environmental-studies class he took with English professor Robert Hass, who took his students hiking on Mount Tam. Hass had each student pick a tree on campus and spend meditative time under it. "The first time it rained that October, I ran to that oak tree as fast as I could," Down recalls.

But his adjustment to on-campus housing did not fare as well. He was accustomed to independence, cooking his own vegan food and keeping an early schedule, which did not fit in with his roommates' lifestyles. At Thanksgiving he moved out and rented a room in North Berkeley - a north-facing "sun room" with no heating. The first night, he shivered in bed and berated himself. "I looked up at the ceiling and said to myself, 'Wow. You did this to yourself, for better or for worse.'"

In his second semester, he saw a poster at McCone Hall for a DeCal class on organic gardening. He jumped at the opportunity, and thus discovered the organic garden at the corner of Walnut and Virginia streets. The garden provided comfort for him during his first lonely summer in Berkeley. Gradually, he joined a community of friends who enjoyed working the soil and eating off the land.

As his math and physics coursework became more challenging, he looked to the garden to ground him. "I need a mixture of theory and practice," he says. "Gardening refreshes my mind." He also developed a desire to mentor children in the sciences and joined Berkeley's Environmental Science Teaching Program, through which he taught elementary and junior-high students.

When Down applied to the Berkeley Undergraduate Apprenticeship Program in 2005, physicist Yuri Kolemensky, who had been tracking his progress, "grabbed him right away." His mission was to study the difference between matter and anti-matter, analyzing the data from the BaBar experiment at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

"Adrian was - and is - the intellectual leader of the student research team, and he is the most motivated and productive," Kolemensky wrote in his letter nominating Down for the University Medal. "The analysis work he has done is of very high quality, on par with what would be expected from the graduate students in particle physics."

Oddly enough, math and physics did not come easily to Down when he started out. He struggled to grasp the theories and concepts, and his success came through sheer determination and hard work. He watched his students struggle too, and that has inspired him to study the internal and external barriers that prevent many minorities and women from going into the sciences.

"I'm not saying everyone in the universe has to be good at math and physics. I understand lots of people don't want it and don't like it," Down says. "All I'm saying is, I want it to be open to whoever does want access to it but feels limited or shut out."

Down expects he'll eventually go to graduate school, saying, "I'm very interested in how people interact with physics. I'm also very interested in physics and math and how it interacts with society at large. I can see myself in a field that is more interdisciplinary. I don't know if pure physics can satisfy that need."

But first he's headed for the Big Island of Hawaii, where he will spend the summer on a project to cultivate land and grow organic food for the local community. And then?

"I need to take some time this year to crystallize where I want to go," Down says. "I've been throwing around the idea of taking a train across Russia and seeing some parts of China."

While his future is up in the air right now, one thing remains constant for Down: "If I have to choose the place most important to me in Berkeley, it's definitely the garden," he says. "Without a doubt."